"Jobs" Biopic Problematic But Worth A Look

In the months after Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, it seemed like only a matter of time before a filmmaker or production team swooped in to put his story to screen first. Jobs’ enormous impact on both technology and pop culture, combined with his famously prickly temperament, made his life story nearly perfect biopic material. And in many ways, his legend has only grown since his passing, so it didn’t necessarily seem crass to rush his story to theaters.

Joshua Michael Stern’s “Jobs” is the first in what’s certain to be a line of Jobs-centric films, and luckily for those future projects – including one penned by Aaron Sorkin – it is unquestionably not the be-all and end-all of its subject matter. That’s not to say it’s without merit, as certain passages of the film are quite good, but it’s serviceable at best, and at worst, it minimizes the cultural importance of Apple and its founder (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a mostly happy Apple customer who is currently writing this review on a MacBook Pro).

Strangely, the film cuts a path inverse to its protagonist’s time in the spotlight. The first third of “Jobs” is a groan-inducing amalgam of live action Disney cheese (think “Invincible”) and hackneyed student art film tropes. The first scene depicts a graying, bearded Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) introducing the iPod to a room of adoring Apple employees, scored by the most saccharine, swelling orchestral passage you’ve ever heard. From there, we join Steve Jobs, the hippie, at Reed College in the 1970s, where he’s a drop-out more concerned with drugs and girls than ambition or computers.

A montage that I think is supposed to represent an acid trip – although it’s so poorly done that it’s hard to tell – is the film’s nadir, coming off like a short film that would be booed out of a college film festival. And it goes on forever. When our lead eventually joins forces with Steve Wozniak (the always likable Josh Gad), the tech guy to Jobs’ dreamer-slash-hype man, the slack narrative begins to pick up speed, but the ‘70s period trappings are laughably overdone, capped off by a character lamenting Jobs’ increasing thorniness – “He’s changed!” This is, inexplicably, accompanied by an absurd shot of Kutcher furiously, angrily tucking his shirt in to signify the character’s transformation from scrappy visionary to cutthroat shark.

But then something sort of magical happens. We transition to the early ‘80s, Apple Computer Inc. having finally moved out of Jobs’ parents’ garage and into a real, high tech office building, and “Jobs” suddenly begins to feel like a real movie. Matt Whiteley’s screenplay finds something of a groove, spending the better part of an hour as a solid, linear piece of storytelling, while the progressively more rebellious Jobs suffers a falling out with his own company. It’s during this stretch that Kutcher’s performance comes into focus.

In wider shots, Kutcher looks astonishingly like Steve Jobs, and the star obviously went to great lengths to recreate the man’s physicality in every way possible. Jobs’ lurching walk is well represented, as are many of his most subtle mannerisms. Even when Kutcher goes overboard vocally or gesticulates too much, it’s hard not to appreciate the performance because it’s clear he’s trying so hard. I’ve never thought much of him as an actor, but he’s clearly still developing his talents and I respect the effort that went into his work here.

Dermot Mulroney shows up in a rather hefty supporting role as Mike Markkula, Apple’s original angel investor and eventual CEO, and his performance is a nice reminder of his talents. A few other actors (including Matthew Modine) make similar impressions in smaller roles. Regrettably, the momentum of the pic’s midsection is lost when the narrative transitions to the ‘90s, but the movie wraps up before it completely collapses.

As disappointing as some of “Jobs” is – and parts of it border on awful – it’s not for a lack of trying. The pieces are in place for the definitive film on Steve Jobs, as is much of the effort, but it’s crippled by a disastrous first act and a general lack of tact. Seeing the future creator of the iPod offhandedly mock a portable CD player as “junk” is so on the nose that it elicits laughter for all the wrong reasons.

That the film barely scratches the surface of Jobs’ life is less of a hitch on the part of the filmmakers and more of a tribute to what an incredible life Jobs led. The screenplay – occasionally reading like it was culled from various Wikipedia entries – is not what it could have been, but I’m not sure any film is worth dismissing because of what it’s not. “Jobs” is an imperfect look at an imperfect man that doesn’t come close to living up to its subject’s legacy. But it’s just insightful enough, albeit briefly, to be worth your time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 16, 2013
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Screenwriter: Matthew Whitely
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some drug content and brief strong language)